A Travellerspoint blog

Have you ever seen this before?

Cultural differences and a rant on mostly inconsequential observations

sunny 60 °F

The day began with a delicious scramble
then I went into the office.

Most of the day was spent finishing up translations. I was really fascinated by their training on “Working Across Cultures.” It talks about research by Geert Hofstede in which he characterizes culture along 5 continuums.

The first characteristic is Power Distance, the extent to which the less powerful members of society accept that power is distributed unequally. In cultures that score low in this characteristic, everyone is believed to have equal rights and superiors tend to be accessible. Change tends to happen in a gradual evolution. For cultures at the other end of the spectrum, inequality is accepted and seen as necessary. Superiors have certain privileges and aren’t very accessible, so change tends to happen by revolution.

Second is Individualism. Does the society tend to have a “we” consciousness where relationships have priority over tasks and fulfilling obligations to family or other groups is paramount and the main fear is that of shame and “saving face.” On the other end of the spectrum is the high individualism cultures, where there is an “I” consciousness which leads to a focus on fulfilling your own obligations (and those of your IMMEDIATE family) and the greatest fear is guilt and losing self-respect.

High Masculinity cultures value performance and have a need to excel. They tend to polarize and covet what is big and fast. Decisiveness is paramount and successful achievers are celebrated. Compare that to the low masculinity cultures that focus more on quality of life, serving others and striving for consensus. There tends to be more sympathy for the unfortunate and intuition is highly regarded.

Another characteristic, which Lothar had mentioned in my training last week was Uncertainty Avoidance, the extent to which people feel threatened by uncertainty and ambiguity.. One side is more relaxed and less stressed, emotions are not readily shown, dissent is accepted and conflict and competition are seen as fair play. These types of cultures have less need for rules than the other side, whose anxiety makes conflict a threat and agreement a prerequisite for moving forward. These cultures have an inner drive to work hard, a need to avoid failure and feel much more comfortable with plenty of rules and laws.

The final characteristic is Long Term Orientation, the extent to which a society shows a pragmatic future-oriented perspective vs. a conventional historical or short-term point of view. Is the culture concerned with absolute truth, tradition, stability and quick results? Or does it accept that there are many truths and take a pragmatic point of view while accepting change and persevering?

Through his research, he then scores each country on these 5 characteristics so that comparisons can be made (and preparations can be made if you are traveling or dealing with other cultures). For example, Germany and the US score similarly on the lower mid range of Power Distance, high on Individualism (although the US is off the charts high), in the upper middle range of Masculinity and at the lower end of Long Term Orientation. The biggest difference (as Lothar had mentioned the other day in the training session) is uncertainty avoidance. Germans score quite high, while the US has a much higher tolerance for uncertainty. Evidence is apparent words we have borrowed from German, such as angst.

At first Germans and Americans will get along well because many Germans speak good English and they’re always on time. Germans tend to appreciate American drive and energy and are charmed by our friendliness. Over time, this “honeymoon period” (where I definitely still am – LOVE the direct feedback, although Bernd describes himself as a sort of hybrid) may give way to frustration when the Germans seem rigid and authoritarian to the Americans, while the Americans seem superficial and unreliable. It then gives tips for interacting, such as preparing for a presentation, where Germans will want as much background information as possible, even if it doesn’t seem immediately relevant. They’ll prefer to carefully consider the past and present before forming a plan. They will be skeptical of American optimism about “potential markets” or “the promise of new developments.”

Also, while Americans tend to get right to business as compared to most cultures, they are in the opposite role with Germans, who find even brief small talk to be a waste of time. You can even see this in the German translation of small talk, which means “empty chitchat.” Germans keep their work and personal lives very separate. Along those lines, Germans are very direct in speaking up when something bothers them or giving criticism. This is considered to be a sign of an open and honest person. Konfliktfähigkeit,” a willingness and ability to engage in conflict, is greatly admired. When you criticize someone, it is seen almost as a compliment because it means that you take them seriously. Contrast that to the US, where for the most part we avoid open confrontation and give indirect feedback that requires reading between the lines. I could go on and on (and I pretty much did), but it was fascinating stuff. There were also comparisons to India and Poland.

Usually there are only a few people who work out of the Konzepte office, but today a dozen or so of the freelancers were in the conference room strategizing about what kind of new trainings they can put together. Bernd had told me that the day’s focus was on trainings for the health industry, but he wasn’t in the meeting and when I talked to a few of the people during a break, it sounded like they were asking me about programs that companies have in the US focused on employee health. When I talked about subsidized gym memberships and blood pressure screenings, she clarified that they were more concerned with mental/emotional health, or what we would probably call engagement and fulfilment. It was really too bad that the meeting was being conducted in German, because I would have loved to have been a part of it. One of the perks of having a meeting at the office was having a fancy catered lunch!
The melon and prosciutto were my favorite! Using little zucchini slices instead of crackers was a cool idea too (Though this would probably really disappoint Kristine).

Because I didn’t do any sightseeing or picture taking today, when I got home, I decided to spice up this post with a few observations of things I have noticed that I have never seen before, which gets back to the original headline (before I went on a tangent about culture). So if its just me and you have seen these things in the states before, let me know.

First, a German keyboard. It looks deceptively harmless because at first glance, everything seems to look familiar, though you may notice that their special characters ö, ä and ü have replaced a few punctuation keys on the far right.
As you start typing, however, you’ll realize that they decided to make one change just to piss you off. They switched the y and the z. Now if they decided to totally rearrange the keys to make more sense for them, I would understand that. But to make just one switch seems silly to me. Anyways, I’m luckily using my laptop most of the time, so the only time I’ve had to deal with this was when I was using that internet café in the airport on my first day.

Moving on, I may have mentioned Sambal Oelek already, but if not, here it is.
I put it on my eggs every morning, and its pretty delicious. I think I mentioned that Elke shutters every time she sees what a large scoop I take to put in my eggs or mix in with my chilli.

This one was kind of cool. We have tomatos on the vine and we have cherry tomatoes, but in my 2 years in the produce department at Wegmans, I never saw cherry tomatoes on the vine.

Eggs. How many eggs do you want? A dozen? Too bad. You can only have a pack of 10. What, 10 is too many you say? Would you like half that? You’re out of luck. You’d have to get a half dozen.

I’ve seen this elsewhere in Europe and might have even mentioned it on blogs from past trips, but I have to say I really think this is a great idea. Most toilets have 2 flush options. A little one and a big one. I’m sure you can figure it out. Seems like a smart little environmentally friendly way to only use as much as you need.

This one cracks me up, though it kind of makes sense. Have you ever seen tomato paste like this?
I guess I can’t blame them. If tooth paste comes in a tube, why not tomato paste too?

Wait a minute, nevermind, they don’t put tooth paste in a tube!
It’s a good thing this toothpaste has a picture of a tooth on it, because I never would have been able to tell. It looks like some kind of face lotion bottle and has words that look like revitalizing on it. To top it off, the toothpaste that comes out is kind of watery and is a creamy pink color, both of which would have made me think it belonged on my face. I had to try it to check, but I was nervous. It may or may not be toothpaste. Certainly not minty like in America.

These are just AWESOME. The little metal bars can be raised or lowered to pull little pulleys in the ceiling and raise or lower the lights themselves. Wish Home Depot carried these bad boys.

Fridges here are much smaller. I was showing Bernd and Elke pictures of our house the other day, and they immediately commented on how enormous our fridge was. They laughed that theirs had been a bit cramped for 3 people, but I took the blame, because most of the space was taken up by my veggies (despite the fact that I have maybe a quarter of the amount of veggies that I usually keep in the fridge at home).

I’ve been meaning to look these up and find out what they are, but they seem like some kind of cream cheese or something. For something of that consistency, tubes don’t seem like such a bad idea. I wonder why we don’t use tubes for food products in the States?

Light switches. Damn. I finally adjusted to not thinking every door was ajar, but I cannot get used to light switches for bathrooms being outside the bathroom. Every time I walk in there and out of habit start to shut the door and reach for the light switch in one motion. And time after time I have to reopen the door fumbling around the corner blindly trying to find the lightswitch.

Last but not least is 16 wheelers. Big trucks at home tend to be all sheet metal. On a very rare occasion the back doors might be canvas. Every once in a while you’ll see those pepsi/coke trucks that have doors along the entire length of the sides that roll up. Here, I have yet to see a truck that wasn’t completely enclosed in canvas (except for the back doors for some reason). Maybe because their winters aren’t as bad? Not sure on this one.

Yesterday, Elke had dug up an old coupon from when they cancelled their gym membership to the gym that had denied me. It was a coupon for one month free and it specifically said that it was transferrable. So around 6pm, I ran over to the gym. The people at the desk ignored me again, so I just walked in and started working out. The weights section wasn’t much, but it was nice to get a workout in. Halfway through, one of the fitness instructors looked at me funny, probably because he didn’t recognize me. He left and came back with another person, who obviously didn’t recognize me either. The person he brought back came up to me speaking German and eventually got across in English that she wanted to see my pass. I told her it was in the locker room and started to head over there and she told me not to worry and to show it to her after my workout. So as I was walking out, she took a look at my coupon. I’m not really sure why, but apparently it wasn’t acceptable. Oh well, glad we figured that out after I was done!

For dinner, Elke made steaks! She was very nervous about the portions because she kept commenting how they were much smaller than American ones. It didn’t matter to me though…she cooked it perfectly and it was incredibly tender. I tried to get cooking tips, but mostly she gave credit to the US beef. America! She finally let me help, as I mashed carrots and potatoes for this fancy little weight watchers dinner.

Usually, when traveling to Europe, I don’t shave just to see how long my scruff will grow. Because this was a business trip, I cleaned it up a little bit by shaving my neck and having as proper of a beard as I can grow. By tonight I had had enough of it. Probably the most ‘stache I’ve ever had (though its still laughable). I hesitate to show the picture in the bottom left, because when my facial hair gets long I usually mess around and shave it into different things but this one looks absolutely ridiculous.

Posted by atbrady 04:40 Archived in Germany Tagged germany cultural bonn product differences windhagen

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Funny, I kind of like the bottom left hand - goetee. Love these posts.

by Dad

Omygosh ... I can't believe you didn't get chased out of the gym?!!! What a funny story! Miss & love you bunches! xoxoxo

by Elaine Brady

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